Somali pirates are systematically torturing hostages and using them as human shields, the top commander of the EU Naval Force said on Tuesday.
Pirates have recently tied hostages upside down and dragged them in the sea, locked them in freezers, beaten them and used plastic ties around their genitals, Major General Buster Howes said.
“There have been regular manifestations of systematic torture,” he said.
If warships approached a pirated ship too closely, the pirates would drag hostages on deck and beat them in front of naval officers until the warship went away, Howes said.
“A few years go, they were very constrained and much more respectful” to hostages, he said, but now “they’ve shown a willingness to use violence much more quickly and much more violence.”
Howes’ account of the worsening treatment of hostages was based on hostage debriefings, naval intelligence and liaison with commercial shipping companies.
There could be several reasons for the change in tactics. As ransoms have risen, the Somali fishermen who began taking ships have been edged out by more ruthless and well-organized gangs.
More warships and better--prepared crews mean pirates have to use more violence to stop ships — for example, hitting a vessel with several rocket-propelled grenades — and sometimes to get to crews that have locked themselves in a safe room or “citadel.”
Citadels, hidden behind reinforced doors, are typically supplied with food and drink, two-way communications and a means of controlling the ship’s engines. Crew members should be able to wait there safely while their ship drifts and help from a nearby warship arrives.
Howes said there had been 21 incidents in recent months when pirates boarded, found the crew locked in a citadel and had to abandon ship.
“They know the cavalry is coming,” he said.
However, as more ships use citadels, the pirates have become more determined to break them open. They’ve fired rocket-propelled grenades at the doors at close range, used plastic explosives, and even set three ships on fire while terrified crews huddled below decks, Howes said.
Pirates are also using more violence because they have become more aware of the value other nations place on the lives of hostages, he said.
Negotiations are dragging on for longer as pirates hold out for bigger ransoms, and torturing a crew member could be one way of putting pressure on a ship owner to settle up quickly.
The realization that the hostages have value — and not just the ship and its cargo — means that pirates are also more frequently using hijacked ships to launch attacks.
In the six days after Christmas, 11 pirated ships had been put to sea to act as “motherships” he said.
Using larger, captured ships to launch attacks offers pirates many advantages. It’s more comfortable and safer than spending weeks floating around in a tiny skiff. The vessels also come with already captured hostages, making the warships more reluctant to intervene, and ship equipment like radios and radar can be useful for hunting new prey.